No more living in the past

 

All good things must come to an end.

That is something that Wigan Athletic followers know all too well. It is only some twenty months since that euphoric experience at Wembley. But it seems like light years away now.

But life goes on. What happened to the players who were in that famous lineup and where are Wigan Athletic heading now?

That wonderful FA Cup final winning team is now all but gone, only 20 months after that wonderfully heady day at Wembley. It was always a matter of time, but circumstances have accelerated the process.

The news of Ben Watson’s impending departure to Watford was a shock for most of us. In our heart of hearts we knew that Shaun Maloney would soon be on his way and it is no surprise to see the club trying to cash in on Callum McManaman, but the Watson case was a bolt out of the blue.

There has been talk about building a Ben Watson statue outside the DW Stadium. One assumes it would show him hanging in mid-air as the ball leaves his head to go into Joe Hart’s net. But the statue would represent much more than a great header from the admirable Watson.  The header helped them deservedly win that cup and it was the pinnacle of Wigan Athletic’s success. In all likelihood it will never happen again.

The team that beat Manchester City at Wembley is etched into the memory of Latics fans. The names of each player roll off the tongue with ease. But how many will still be at the club at the end of this season?

Not many one would say. It did not take long for Roberto Martinez to take Antolin Alcaraz, Arouna Kone, James McCarthy and Joel Robles. Add to that the retirement of the charismatic Paul Scharner. However, at the start of last season the majority of the FA Cup winning side were still at the club, together with others who missed the final through injury.

At the end of last season we saw the departure of the free agents. Jordi Gomez went to Sunderland, and the underrated Jean Beausejour, who missed the Cup final through injury, went back to Chile. What was to prove the hammer blow for Uwe Rosler was to lose the admirable James McArthur to Crystal Palace.

Since Malky Mackay has arrived we have seen Emmerson Boyce descend to the bench. Roger Espinoza has gone back to the United States, where it looks like Shaun Maloney is also heading. The exciting, if frustrating, Callum McManaman is clearly on his way too, albeit with a cash fillip for Mackay.

That famous team has been dismantled. So too have many of the expectations associated with them. In fact expectations have fallen so low that avoiding relegation from the Championship would be largely viewed as positive.

Like it or lump it, the Mackay era is upon us. The Scot has not had an easy time, given the pressure on him from the FA and the media. His record at Wigan so far beggars belief, a woeful tally.

But Mackay is now going to have something that neither Owen Coyle not Uwe Rosler ever had. That is a lower expectation from fans and dealing with the egos of players who were FA Cup winners.

Latics are no longer going to live in the past.

The question is how long will it take for Mackay to turn it around?

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Selling off the crown jewels – but who cares?

Photo courtesy of royal.gov.uk

Photo courtesy of royal.gov.uk

The exodus has all but begun. What seemed almost inconceivable just a few months ago is well underway. The crown jewels are about to be sold, but nobody seems to care.

Shaun Maloney will surely depart over the coming weeks. The media tell us that there are at least four clubs interested in signing him and that Latics are asking for a fee of £1.5m, which they are unlikely to get unless they can instigate a bidding war. It is said that Leicester City have already offered £750,000.

Maloney is an icon at Wigan, largely through his marvelous performances in the latter part of the 2012-13 season and his role as an FA Cup winner. He was the playmaker, the one who would make himself available to receive a pass, able to slot through incisive balls to his forwards. He was excellent on set pieces and would use his dribbling skills to great effect.

However, through reasons of injury or illness or lack of form, the Scot has started in just nine league matches this season. He has starred for his country, showing those kinds of attributes. But for Latics he has not consistently shown that keenness to receive the ball and make things happen. He did those things in Mackay’s first game at home to Middlesbrough, scoring a spectacular free kick and going so close with a previous effort. But since then he has not reproduced such form.

His fans would say that he remains the best midfield player at the club, but is playing in a team that does not know how to play good football. Too often his fellow midfield players will pass the ball behind for the defence to hoof up front. The case comes to mind of Dutch international midfielder Denny Landzaat who got himself into hot water during the Steve Bruce era. Landzaat’s performances at Wigan had been disappointing. When asked about his form by the Dutch media he told them that most of the time the ball from defence went over his head, not to his feet. Landzaat was undoubtedly a skillful player, but he just did not fit in to the Bruce style of play, so he moved on.

At 31 years of age, Maloney will be keen to safeguard his future. Despite having been dogged by injury he has shown that he has the quality to be a better than average player at Premier League level.

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Maloney was a key cog in the machine that played the best football in Wigan Athletic’s history. However, under the Mackay regime he just does not fit.

Most fans will accept the need for Maloney to move, but the case of Oriel Riera is something different. The latest reports suggest that he is about to join Deportivo La Coruña on loan until the end of the season. Promoted last season from the segunda division they are in 16th place in the primera division of La Liga.

Riera’s case contrasts with that of Maloney. The Scot is about to move to a higher league after an unsuccessful spell in a lower one. The Spaniard is about to do the reverse.

Following the recent news of Grant Holt’s long term injury, many of us expected Riera to stay, but it appears that negotiations for his release have been going on for some time. Mackay and his coaching staff have clearly written off the Spaniard and it looks like he will not be coming back after his loan.

Critics will say that Riera lacks the physicality to be successful as a central striker in the Championship. At times he has been anonymous on the field of play, not being able to stamp his mark on the game.

However, most fans will say that he has never been given a fair chance. Riera came to Wigan three years too late. He would have most likely thrived playing in Roberto Martinez’s team. However, the role of the lone centre forward this season has been largely taken up in trying to make something of the long hooves launched by goalkeeper and defenders. One wonders if even the likes of Diego Costa or Robin Van Persie could have done any better receiving that kind of service.

Rather than include Riera in the starting lineup Mackay has resorted either to the goal-shy Marc-Antoine Fortune or James McClean, a left winger playing out of position. The result has been that Latics have only scored one goal from open play since the manager’s arrival.

The club will be keen to bring in funds gathered from Maloney’s transfer and Riera’s loan deal. Andy Delort will surely be among the next to go. The transfer fees paid for Riera and Delort together amounted to around £5m, big money for Latics these days. They will be keen to cut their losses. Further economies will be made shortly when Roger Espinoza will be taken off the wage bill, sadly on his way back to Kansas after a frustrating time at Wigan.

The need for a physically uncompromising defender has been standing out over the course of the season. Media reports suggest that Mackay is about to sign a player who fits the bill. Liam Ridgewell went to Portland Timbers in the MLS in June after being released by West Bromwich Albion. He is an experienced Premier League defender, who can play at centre half or left back.

However, in a time when the club are under attack from the national media they are about to make themselves vulnerable again. Moreover fans have become disillusioned by the attitudes of players who earn more in a couple of weeks than most of them do in a year. Ridgewell will come with the baggage of his antics of a couple of years ago which were reported on the national media. Such behaviour will hardly endear him to the fans at Wigan.

These are trying times for Wigan Athletic supporters. The club seems to have gone into free-fall and there is little light at the end of the tunnel. Fans have grown so disillusioned with the lack of performance of the players that most no longer care about who gets sold off in the transfer window.

There is a general malaise that is dragging the club down. Players who have proved themselves in the past have been pulled down into the mire.

The likelihood is that the players leaving during Mackay’s fire sale will be successful at their new clubs.

The crown jewels of old will most likely be sold off – but what will take their place?

Malky’s January Fire Sale

firesale2

What is critical……is to eliminate problem personalities – or what he calls the “s—-” – from the dressing room. It’s not just the 11 who play, If you have half a dozen s—- around you’ve no chance. You can’t win. They’ll contaminate the rest of them and bring the whole club down. They’ll be negative everywhere, getting in to good lads and bringing them down to their level. If you walk in and see one or two s—- then you’re watching them, watching who they talk to and what they are doing. They suck as much energy out of you as anything.”

These revealing Harry Redknapp quotes come from an article on the Daily Telegraph site on the key to survival in the Premier League.

Malky Mackay would be wise to listen to Redknapp’s words. He will be aware of what happened to his predecessor at Wigan. He has the January transfer window as a means of moving some of those elements on.

Mackay hardly had a positive arrival at the club and has yet to stamp his mark on the style of play. What we saw on Saturday against Norwich was players going through the motions. A spiritless and gutless performance. It is not the first of that type that we have seen this season, but one expects a new manager to inject new energy and change the style of play. Why has Mackay not had more effect on the performances up to this point? What can we expect any changes over the coming weeks?

Mackay has now been in charge for three matches. His record is D1 L2. The 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough was the best performance of the three, not only in the result but in the way the team played. Mackay had brought in the “old guard”, only two players signed by Uwe Rosler making the starting lineup. Not surprisingly there was more cohesion and the team played with more spirit than of late. He continued to rely on the old guard in the losses to Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich, but the response was poor.

It could be said that Mackay has used his most experienced players in a time of crisis. The conspiracy theorist will say that he has given players who undermined Rosler the chance to show their mettle. Interestingly the lineup against Norwich included nine players who were born or raised in the British Isles. Moreover the two from overseas- Figueroa and Fortune- have been in England for a long time.

The upcoming game at Watford will surely provide an indication of Mackay’s future plans. Given the continuation of poor results he is not in a position where he can continue with the old guard. Confidence is low and even good players are looking poor at the moment. However, Mackay clearly has to shuffle his pack since the players he has used so far have largely let him down.

Mackay recently mentioned ten players being out of contract for Latics at the end of the season, suggesting they will be trying to impress him enough to be offered a new contract. However, the reality is that likes of Ali Al-Habsi, Shaun Maloney and Ivan Ramis are likely to be lured by other clubs who can offer them better deals. Most of those players are in their late twenties or in their thirties and will demand relatively high salaries, which Latics will find hard to afford with a drop of £9m in parachute payments next season.

It is not only the out of contract players who could depart in January. Dave Whelan has always said that any player can go if the price is right, but the realities of an unsuccessful season and an upcoming drop in revenues could well mean that players go at bargain prices.

One of the reasons cited for Rosler’s lack of success this season was that his squad was too large, leading to too much squad rotation and dissatisfied players who were not getting playing time. Mackay has already acknowledged that the squad is large. However, stats from the transfermarkt site suggest that Latics’ squad is around average size for the division. Its average age of 27.6 years is the second highest behind the squad of Millwall at 28.9 years.

However, this is not to suggest the squad is not too large. Too many clubs in the Championship are spending well over what they should be on player salaries, given the revenues they are receiving. Whelan will be keen to cut down the squad to a financially more manageable size, probably around 23-24 players.

We can expect a fire sale in January. If what ‘Arry was referring to has been the case at Latics then it might take until February for the passion to return to Latics’ play.

Let’s hope this is not the case.

Old guard supports Mackay – Wigan Athletic 1 Middlesbrough 1

Wigan Athletic’s old guard turned out in force at the DW yesterday. Third from bottom Latics were more than a match for third from top Middlesbrough and the home team can count itself a shade unfortunate not to have come out of it with three points. There were enough positive signs to suggest that Latics can put their horrendous start to the season behind them and be a team that will be hard to beat.

Malky Mackay wisely resorted to experience and the opening lineup had just two of Uwe Rosler’s signings in it. The old guard was back in force.

The unfortunate Rob Kiernan was not even on the bench. Emmerson Boyce was back in his old favourite right back position, with Andrew Taylor restored at left back. The centre of defence had a solid look about it with a pairing of Ivan Ramis and Leon Barnett. Mackay retained the 4-3-3 formation that Rosler had been using of late, with Adam Forshaw and Chris McCann in the holding roles and Roger Espinoza pushed further forward. Marc-Antoine Fortune played the lone centre forward role with Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney playing wide.

The game started with a show of support for Dave Whelan that brought him to tears, as fans stood up and applauded him. It was one of those emotional moments that will be etched into the collective Wigan Athletic memory for years to come.

Latics started cautiously but soon started to match Boro. Players were working hard for each other and the team looked organised and compact. Chris McCann was bossing the left centre of midfield, reminding us of what we have been missing for the past seven months. In the 9th minute Shaun Maloney went close with a free kick that went just over the top. Fifteen minutes later McCann was brought down after bursting through from midfield. Maloney stepped up to put a perfect free kick into the left hand corner. The game became largely a midfield tussle with neither side willing to commit too many players forward. But just before half time Boro centre forward Kike turned to put a fine shot narrowly wide.

The game continued in the same vein until the 57th minute when Patrick Bamford, who had come on as a substitute for the visitors, scored an opportunist goal, evading Ramis and firing across Carson into the right hand corner. But Latics held firm and a patient and skillful buildup led to the ball falling to McCann, who could not keep it down and the chance was lost.

Maloney was buzzing and threatened to unlock a stubborn and well organized Boro defence. His set pieces had been excellent and in the 70th minute his inswinging corner was met by Barnett whose effort hit the post. James McClean had come on for Espinoza after 70 minutes. There was great applause for the return of Ben Watson, coming on for Forshaw after 80 minutes. James Perch replaced a tired looking Boyce a minute later.

Although one of the physically biggest sides that one will see in the Championship this year, Boro had kept the ball largely on the ground, no doubt under the influence of Spanish manager Aitor Karanka. However, in the closing minute they threatened to use their height to steal the game at the death. However, Latics defence was to hold firm.

The Good

Mackay was wise in packing so many of the old guard into his lineup. That lack of cohesion that had been so evident with new players being introduced en masse was no longer apparent. The players looked comfortable working together and effort and commitment was also evident.

McCann was a revelation, somehow completing the full period of the game despite a lack of match practice after such a long absence. His tackling was as crisp as ever and he put the ball to good use. Maloney was a different player to what we had seen under Rosler, looking like the player of yesteryear under Martinez.

Mackay made a bold statement by putting Boyce in at right back and leaving Perch on the bench. Boyce looked rusty and off-pace at times, but he can offer so much more going forward. He has been out of action for several weeks and that showed. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to regularly command that right back spot at 35 year of age. Andrew Taylor fully justified his recall, being solid in defence and offering good support to the attack. It was another bold move to give him preference over crowd favourite Maynor Figueroa.

It was an experienced and capable back four and it is to be hoped that Mackay will not tinker with it, as did his predecessor. The midfield worked hard. Forshaw continues to show that he is willing to make the effort for the team. His more creative side will show more when he is fully established as a starter in the team. Espinoza showed typical commitment, with an all-action performance. He made one or two naïve passes, but this should not detract from the value he added. Whether an attacking midfield position is the best place to play him remains open to debate.

McManaman threatened, but once again the opposition were prepared to deal with him. He so much more dangerous when not confined to the right wing. Fortune fought for the high balls, but was short of ideas in his distribution and did not move into positions that threatened the opposition defence. The time must surely come for Oriel Riera to appear on a regular basis. Andy Delort did not even make the bench, but his time will surely come too.

When McClean came on in the second half, Maloney moved into a more central position. The 4-3-3-formation became more like the 4-2-3-1 played by Scotland. That could well prove to be Mackay’s favoured system.

The Bad

Mackay put out a conservative lineup and did not pour men into attack. Given Wigan’s league position he was probably justified. He is not a manager associated with flowing attacking football, but the most important thing for Latics at the moment is results.

This was not a great result, neither was it a bad one.

Player Ratings

Scott Carson: 6 – largely unemployed and cannot be faulted for Boro’s goal.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – it was good to see the captain back.

Ivan Ramis: 7 – classy as ever, with fine interceptions and quality passing of the ball. But should he have done better with Bamford’s goal?

Leon Barnett: 6.5 – not at his best, but solid and dependable. But his style is a perfect foil for that of Ramis. Together they could provide a formidable centre of defence.

Andrew Taylor: 7 – a complete performance. Deserved his recall.

Adam Forshaw: 6.5- full of industry.

Roger Espinoza: 6.5 – his mistakes were more obvious than the good things he did. Deserves an extended run in the team.

Chris McCann: 8.5 – combative, hardworking and with the cultured left foot. A quality player at Championship level.

Callum McManaman: 6 – exciting as always when on the ball, but should be more proactive when Latics attack. Despite his prodiguous talent he needs to add another dimension to his game to become a real top player.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: 6 – committed but limited in attacking vision.

Shaun Maloney: 8.5 – got rough treatment from the visitors, but was not deterred and showed his quality. A brilliant free kick.

Substitutes:

James McClean: – raw energy, physicality, speed and commitment are his key assets. But he is another player who needs to take his game to a higher level. Needs to develop an aspect of unpredictability about his play.

James Perch: – a very solid and dependable full back, unlucky not to make the starting lineup.

Ben Watson: – can he make a comeback in the same way as McCann? After successive leg breaks it is going to be a tall order. But if he can Latics will have a formidable midfield.

Maloney can do it for Scotland, but will he do it for Latics?

 

What a delight it was for a Latics fan to watch Shaun Maloney curl in that beauty for Scotland on Friday. It was reminiscent of the gem he scored in that 1-0 win for Latics against Manchester United in April 2012.

A lot has happened since that memorable first win over the Red Devils. Maloney was the creative force behind that incredible revival that saw Wigan Athletic not only beat United, but also win away at Liverpool and Arsenal. They were heady days for Latics and for Maloney.

It was only in the second half of that 2011-12 season that Maloney established himself in the team lineup. In the 2012-13 season, which ended in relegation from the Premier League, he made 41 appearances, scoring 7 goals. Sadly since then, following a long layoff through injury, he has not been an automatic choice in the team, even when fit.

Maloney’s performances for Latics this season have been intermittent and patchy. He was not fit at the start of the season and has not commanded a regular place in the Wigan Athletic lineup. This is in contrast with his position in the Scotland squad where he has been a first choice under Gordon Strachan.

Maloney made his debut for his country in 2005 and has since made 36 appearances, with 4 goals. His recent performances have been excellent, as he has fitted perfectly into Gordon Strachan’s tactical system. He scored a very well taken goal in the enthralling 1-1 draw with Poland in Warsaw and it was his deflected shot that won the previous game at home to Georgia. The gate at Celtic Park for the Ireland match was the highest for Scotland for 25 years, an indication of how much Strachan has lifted the Scots. After years of mediocrity Scotland are regaining respect on the international scene. Strachan’s positive tactical approach is to be commended and Maloney plays a key role in his team.

Maloney is in the final year of his contract at Wigan. He remains a fan favourite, although not always one of the manager. It has been rumoured that he did not see eye to eye with Uwe Rosler or Owen Coyle. Hopes were high when he returned from injury near the end of last season. He could have provided the magic to lift Latics through the playoffs, but maybe it was expecting too much after his recovery from hip surgery.

Seeing Maloney for Scotland the other night, he looked as fit as he ever has been for Latics.

Is Maloney more interested in shining for his country than his club? Is he prepared to deal with the physicality of the Championship division? Is he going to be supportive of a new manager at Wigan?

Will a change of manager at Latics inspire Maloney to show the kind of ability that will unlock defences in the Championship? One hopes that will be the case, with a player that has so much to offer.

The alternative could be his departure in January. Let’s hope that will not be the case.